Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
There is a single light in the room, twin giraffes holding up the bulb beneath the shade. My daughters are in bed, their heads appearing from beneath the covers. I sit in an easy chair in the corner and read: “Many years ago, there was an Emperor who was so very fond of new clothes…” This classic tale, captured and known to us through Hans Christian Andersen, is the story of an Emperor who is taken in by con-artists who weave a cloth they say is visible only to the intelligent. No one can see the cloth, of course, because there is no cloth to be seen, but no one will admit it because they buy the lie and do not want to be seen as unworthy. They all keep the illusion going until one day the emperor goes parading naked through the streets, followed by his royal court holding the train of his non-existent new clothes. No one in the city will admit that they do not see the clothes until a child, in his innocence, exclaims: “But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” And in that innocent exclamation the spell is broken as the people begin to say, “Listen to the voice of the child!” The Emperor, still caught up in the lie, keeps going, walking on in his underwear.
My daughters fall asleep in the dark, but I stay up thinking. There is something in this story that reminds me of the gospel. Our reading this Sunday has a far darker tinge than Hans Christian Andersen’s satirical tale, but in this story of the death of John the Baptist we see a similar unmasking of power and its illusions. Herod, the puppet king who can both command armies and order capital punishment, is shown here to be an unjust ruler who executes a righteous man on the basis of a drunken vow. John’s death shows Herod and the powers he represents to be no more than the arrogant forces of a world that acts with the power that only the devil can dole out–the authority over the kingdoms of the world that the Adversary offers Jesus if only he will bow to Satan.
To grasp authority, to have the power to rule in the world, is always a temptation–especially when Herod is in charge and the just suffer, but the Gospel of Mark is here offering us an alternative lesson in how disciples are to relate to power. They are not to grab the institutions of the world and make them good; they are to go into the world with no money and no extra resources, to call for repentance and announce the kingdom of God even if it means that we will suffer death because of it. Like John. Like Jesus.
In seeking to understand this story we must remember that it is a part of Mark’s instruction on how to be a disciple. Our reading last Sunday told of the twelve being sent out in mission to spread the good news of God’s Kingdom and to welcome that reign by casting out the forces of evil and bring healing that restores the community to wholeness. This story of John’s execution comes in the middle of that mission because while the disciples are acting through the power of God, Mark wants to remind them that there is another power at work in the world, a power that may kill them just as it may tempt them.
The lesson of discipleship returns again and again to this question of power as the disciples learn that Jesus did not come to help them take earthly power for good, but rather to renounce earthly power so that the power of God might work through them. That is why John’s death is in the midst of this story of mission–it is the beginning of the victory that will come when Jesus also suffers death and is then raised by the power of God.
The work of the disciple in the face of this earthly power is to reject it as Jesus rejected it. As the priest and social critic Ivan Illich put it, “The rejection of power…[by] Jesus troubles the world of power, because he totally submits to it without ever being part of it.” Illich goes on to say that “Jesus has given us the example for all times” of what being “subject to the governing authorities” means “by submitting to Herod, Annas, Kaiphas, Pilate.”
The disciples are those who renounce worldly power in order to live lovingly in the flow of the power of God. This power is not something we can possess, but something we can join and move in, like a river whose currents are too strong to fight against and in which safety is found only by moving with it. When we live in this power we are able to retain a sort of powerlessness and innocence that enables us to see the authorities of this world clearly.
It was the foolishness of the powerful and those who wanted to be regarded by the powerful that led to the emperor’s naked parade through the streets. This is a reality that shows up in fascism in all its forms, not only authoritarian governments, but also the fascism of our hearts. As the philosopher Michel Foucault put it, “The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.” This is the force of Herod and it is the force that echoes in every effort to manage the world through the powers and authorities of the world.
Our liberation from this desire, this fascism of our hearts, can only come through the renunciation of power that is exemplified in the foolishness of the cross. Herod had his chance; John and Jesus called on him to repent; but he knew that that turning would mean the end of his power, as illusory as it was. Like the Emperor in the story, parading on naked in the street, he continued in his pride. But where hope may be lost for Herod, there is still hope for the people who hear the call of the child who knows no pride, who tells the truth in powerlessness and innocence. And here we find the vocation of the disciple.
Reflecting on this folk-tale, the Cistercian contemplative Thomas Merton wrote in his essay “Letter to an Innocent Bystander”:
Have you and I forgotten that our vocation, as innocent bystanders–and the very condition of our terrible innocence–is to do what the child did, and keep on saying the king is naked, at the cost of being condemned criminals?…If the child had not been there, they would all have been madmen, or criminals. It was the child’s cry that saved them.
The message of Mark is that we cannot save ourselves from being condemned as criminals. Our forebears in the faith were certainly condemned as such, but by keeping to our vocation of powerlessness and dependence upon God–no money, and no bag–we have the chance to help save a neighbor from pride and the fascism of the heart. We can look at all of the institutions and authorities and powers of the world and say, like the child, “the Emperor is naked.”